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Handlarski's client acquitted of firearms charges

A young man has been acquitted of firearms charges after Toronto criminal lawyer Ryan Handlarski urged the jury to look beyond the police depiction of him as a violent drug dealer. 

“The challenge was getting the jury not to look at the case like a police officer,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Police raided the 24-year-old man’s basement apartment in Toronto on July 15, 2015 acting on a tip from a confidential informant, says Handlarski, principal of RH Criminal Defence.

They found cocaine in his bedroom, about $7,500 in cash and in a second bedroom, a suitcase containing two restricted handguns, one of which was loaded, along with 50 rounds of ammunition.

He was charged with possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking, possession of the proceeds of crime (the cash) over $5,000 and several gun charges, including possession of a loaded prohibited firearm and possession of a restricted firearm with readily accessible ammunition. 

Despite having no criminal record, the defendant faced seven to 10 years in prison if convicted on all counts. 

Police thought they had an open and shut case against a man they depicted as a nasty, potentially violent drug dealer, Handlarski says.

But as the Ontario Superior Court trial progressed over seven days in January 2017, deeper evidentiary layers were revealed, he says. 

Although police officers testified there was no sign of anyone else living in the apartment, “if you looked closely you could see the evidence of another person,” Handlarski says. 

For instance, the jury was shown a picture of the bathroom, taken from a distance, but when the photo was blown up you could see a second toothbrush in a package, Handlarski says.

In the second bedroom, two couches were arranged in such a way as to make space for a blow-up mattress on the floor. Photos submitted in court, upon close examination, showed an electric air mattress pump, Handlarski explains.

Officers admitted under cross-examination to never having tested the suitcase for DNA or fingerprints, which might have revealed who actually handled it, he adds.

Handlarski subpoenaed the man that his client said sometimes stayed at the apartment. 

Once he began testifying, the man displayed a wide knowledge of firearms in his testimony and readily admitted to owning the two guns in the suitcase, Handlarski says. “He knew everything about these two guns that had been left, which one was loaded and the brand. He knew everything.”

The man said he used the handguns for his own protection when conducting drug deals; he told the jury he sometimes stayed at the apartment but that the defendant knew nothing about the firearms, the defence lawyer says.

Handlarski’s client also took the stand, admitting that the cocaine was his, but adding he only sold to friends and acquaintances. He also admitted that the $7,500 was his, but insisted only $2,000 to $3,000 was related to his cocaine sales. The rest was earnings from his jobs as a landscaper and soccer coach, for which he was paid in cash, he said.

He also insisted that he is not a violent person, Handlarski says.  “And the jury believed him.”

After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury acquitted him of the firearms charges and possession of more than $5,000 in the proceeds of crime. They did convict him of a lesser count of possessing under $5,000 in the proceeds of crime and the cocaine charge. He will be sentenced April 12.

The defendant was greatly relieved to be cleared of the gun charges and to escape the lifelong label of a violent offender, Handlarski says. Although he will likely be sentenced to a term of custody, it will not be the seven to 10 years he faced if convicted of the firearm offences, he adds. 

The jury responded to Handlarski's urging that they look beyond the stack of damning photos presented in court, he says.

“The first impression isn’t enough. Look deeper,” he says. “Very often something may look like an overwhelming case, but when you actually have a chance to challenge the evidence and call your own, it’s not so clear-cut. It’s a case that people really have to think about.” 

The result is a testament to the jury system, Handlarski says.

“When it comes to issues of knowledge and control, juries are often the best placed to make the ultimate decisions,” he says. “You can never underestimate the importance of the jury system to an accused person.”

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